Why We Don't Trust Science

Jul 17, 2020


According to a Pew Research Center study, scientist is one of the most trusted professions in the U.S., second only to the military. Trust levels are lower for K-12 principals, religious leaders, the media, and elected officials. So why do we hear so many people question scientific findings?

Science communication expert Katie Cooper is an Assistant Professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of Wyoming. Cooper said that our personal biases play a huge role in how we interpret science.

"We all have a tendency to conform new information to our already held beliefs," said Cooper. "We process information based on what we already think and typically we tend to fit that information to where it matches what we are already seeing because that takes a lot less brainpower, takes a lot less effort, and it doesn't make us feel bad for being wrong."

Cooper was an author on a 2015 study that tested trust in science for both conservatives and liberals.

"When people were exposed to information that is considered value incongruent, so something that disagrees with their political ideology, people report decreased trust in the institution of science," said Cooper. "This is pretty alarming. It happens for both liberals and conservatives, it just depends on the issue."

Cooper said that the reason we may hear more about conservatives distrusting science is because the topics they disagree with are more prevalent in the media.

UW atmospheric scientist Shane Murphy had a different take on the distrust issue.

"I often wonder if the resistance is because there's no easy way out. It's hard to accept a fact that means you're going to have to significantly change your life," said Murphy. "That's my feeling more than anything, it's not really anything about the quality of the science, it's just that the science is presenting an uncomfortable result."

Murphy said this often applies to climate change.

"Especially in the climate field or sometimes in the air quality field, there's science that people just don't want to accept, even though it's very robust," said Murphy.

Kaatie Cooper, the science communication expert, said the same concepts apply to the pandemic.

"I think that a lot of the rejection of expert recommendations about things like mask-wearing and social distancing really comes down to fear and a resistance to uncertainty," said Cooper. "Say I accept that mask-wearing is necessary, it follows that I also accept that COVID-19 is a legitimate threat to the safety of myself and others, and that can be scary to acknowledge."

Another UW science communicator, Kristen Landreville, said that trust in general is hard to achieve and very easy to break. She used the current controversy about face masks as an example.

"I think what you had happen is a lack of transparency and that created a lack of trust in future communication by the CDC," said Landreville. "People say, 'why should I believe them now when they kind of lied to us before?' and that's a very good question, but then you look at the dozens and dozens of scientific studies that have now come out."  

Alex Buerkle, UW Botany Professor, teaches a genomics course in Czechia.
Credit Alex Buerkle

UW professor Alex Buerkle is often surprised when people ignore expert opinions.

"I'm a scientist. I've been a scientist for quite a while, but in areas that are not my specialty I have to rely on the experts myself. Just like we rely on experts to perform medical procedures or to fly airplanes," said Buerkle.

Buerkle said that he thinks distrust in science has been deliberately pushed by commercial and political interests, and it's nothing new.

"There was active sowing of mistrust of science with respect to the dangers of smoking for example," said Buerkle.

Science communicator Landreville said that trust in science is not equal across the board.

"More marginalized groups of people historically tend to be more skeptical and less trusting of science compared to whites," said Landreville.

Landreville said that may be because there have been a number of instances where minorities and people of color were used in experiments without their consent (for example, the theft of cells from Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male).

Landreville said acknowledging mistakes and being transparent may lead to more trust in science. But science communication expert Kaatie Cooper said trust in science can be a very individual process.

"Several studies have actually shown that the more informed or educated a person is, the better the tools they have to counter-argue new information," said Cooper. "Say a well-educated individual is politically opposed to climate change, they are better at convincing themselves that the science information that they receive is wrong because they are better at producing counter arguments against that scientific data."

In an age where information of any kind is readily available to back up an argument, overcoming personal biases can be incredibly difficult. Landreville said the best thing you can do is check your facts, check your friend's facts, and have real discussions using real evidence.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.